It almost doesn't matter to David Profumo that he can't catch anything – it's still a perfect day on the Dee.
‘Falling as snow on higher ground,’ predicted the forecaster and as, up here, we are at 1,200ft in our jim-jams, it was no surprise the lights of my Disco barely penetrated a vortex of flakes as I started down the glen at 5am for a spot of spring salmon fishing. Kirkmichael was a whiteout, but, as I crested the Devil’s Elbow, the distant scree was washed in the peachy light of dawn and, before long, I was tackling a full Scottish breakfast on glorious Deeside.
Born 4,000ft up in the corries of the Cairngorms, the Dee is a powerful river throughout its 87-mile course; once known as ‘Bleedthirsty Dee’, it was thought to require three human sacrifices annually. The upper reaches are notoriously wild and were renowned for the ‘detestabill practizeis’ of witchcraft. Yet this scenic splendour is repeatedly hymned by writers — Byron called Lochnagar ‘the most sublime and picturesque of the Caledonian Alps’—and, having visited (boy and man) since 1960, I, too, feel a chap can be happy here among its birk glades and sprightly currents.
In the golden age of the silver Dee, this was the place for Scottish springers. The laird of Park once grassed 19 to his own rod, before luncheon. Now, however, there are grave concerns about its early runs, despite total catch and release. When I arrived in early April, the Cambus o’May beat had accounted for just one fresh fish.
With the water a chilly 36˚F, ghillie Fergus Cumming advised me to try a sink-tip and a small Tosh bottle tube, to tickle them on the nose. The nice chaps at Farlows had lent me a magnificent Loomis NRX fifteen-footer and, as my friend Bill the Vet was toting his new Mackenzie double-hander, I reckoned it was time for the Clash of the Titans.
Our host Simon started me in at Peter Ogg, which was running nice and clear at 9in. The cobbled wading was a touch stumbly and I strove to resist any ‘bleedthirsty’ embrace. We covered Stone in the Hole, Holly Bush and the Overflow and, although the beat was new to me, it felt curiously familiar through the writings of John Ashley-Cooper, a genius loci of this region, who described it as ‘a fairyland of delightful surroundings’. We tried the Monkey, Willie Gunn and Franc N Snaelda flies, but, by the time we finished up on the Glashan pool, the only pull we had managed was from a flask of Old Pulteney.
Were the fish lying low with their ‘heids doun’ or were they simply not there? At such challenging times, one can only persist with a series of optimistic manoeuvres and cultivate a grim equanimity.
Next morning, we were on the fabled Tassachd, rated by Augustus Grimble as ‘perhaps the very best pool on the whole Dee’. It has a fine rhythm to it and, soon, the Rio line was reaching out (although I’m not sure old Augustus would have been much impressed by my final fankle). A few stalwart daffodils were blowing their trumpets into the cold wind and fragrant woodsmoke whirled over from the hut on the far bank. It was a splen-did day to be hooking nothing, although I must confess I might have stooped to ‘detestabill practizeis’ had I only known how.
At lunch, none of the Titans had touched or seen a finny thing, but in the fug around the stove, there was still good cheer; Simon is a wine-trade luminary, so we enjoyed an elegant Vacqueyras with the ham and the dressed crab was paired with a Rully the colours of sunlight. ‘You never catch any fish, so it all seems pointless,’ opined Mrs Reel Life, on the phone.
I could have explained about the subtle sense of renewal you derive from a day on the river and I might have mentioned the song of a fly-line in the breeze or the sheer thrill of landing your feather in a stream. I suppose I might have described the privacy, intimacy and independence you experience at the water’s edge or spoken of Thoreauvian transcendentalism. Instead, it seemed simpler to claim I kept a fancy woman in Ballater and leave it at that.
Later, bimbling back homewards past Balmoral, I recalled a comment the future Duchess of Cambridge wrote in an African safari-lodge book: ‘No fish, but great fun trying.’ Now, that’s the spirit.